Katherine Kersten: The real purpose behind the imam publicity blitz

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    By Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune
    Last update: December 14, 2006 – 11:17 AM

    On Dec. 1, a curious report on the grounded-imams incident at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport appeared on the website of the Iranian Quran News Agency. The report quoted extensively from Madhi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. The foundation is the American arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, "the world's most influential Islamic fundamentalist group," according to the Chicago Tribune.
    Bray's initial statement about the incident had an all-American, see-you-in-court ring. He demanded "large financial compensation for the imams," adding, "We want US Airways and any other airline displaying this type of behavior against Muslims to be hit where it hurts, the pocketbook."

    The report echoed statements made by the imams themselves. Omar Shahin, their spokesman, has portrayed the incident in a way that's consistent with a lawsuit and a public relations offensive. He's called for a Jesse Jackson-style boycott of US Airways, and applied classic civil-rights rhetoric to the incident: "This is prejudice; this is obvious discrimination," the Star Tribune quoted him as saying. "I cannot change the color of my skin," he told Newsweek.

    But the report on the Iranian website, which has appeared on a variety of Muslim websites worldwide, had a larger primary focus. After the imams incident, it quoted Bray as saying Muslims want "new, broad-sweeping legislation that will extract even larger financial and civil penalties for any airline that participates in racial and religious profiling."

    The report is optimistic that Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, will lend his support to new legislation. Ellison, it says, has expressed his opposition to "such racial and religious profiling." Ellison, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

    One piece of legislation in the works is the End Racial Profiling Act. It is an important priority of Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, whose district includes one of the largest Muslim populations in the country. Conyers introduced the bill in 2004 and 2005, but it went nowhere. Now the alignment of forces may be changing. Conyers will probably be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when the new Democratic-controlled Congress convenes next month.

    Nancy Pelosi, who called herself a "proud" cosponsor of the Profiling Act in 2004, is the incoming House speaker. And in January, Ellison, who represents the district where the imams incident occurred, will take his seat in Congress.


    The act, although it doesn't as yet impose large penalties, would bar any federal, state or local law enforcement agency from "relying, to any degree, on race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion in selecting which individuals to subject to routine or spontaneous investigatory activities." That would include questioning, searches and seizures.

    One of the act's central features is its definition of illegal profiling. Under it, if airport security personnel question passengers who are disproportionately Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent, this alone would constitute a presumptive violation of the law. Law enforcement agencies would bear the burden of proving that discrimination was not the cause.

    What would the effect of such a law be?

    "A law that would compel security professionals to focus on keeping their statistics within certain norms rather than on their mission keeping airline travel safe would have a devastating effect on our ability to ensure airline safety," said Daniel Horan of the Los Angeles Police Department in an interview. He worked at the Los Angeles airport on profiling-related issues for 6 years.

    In the past few weeks the public relations campaign for the Profiling Act has moved into high gear. On Tuesday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations advised American Muslims to beware of the dangers of "flying while Muslim." In light of recent allegations of "airport profiling," it said, the council has set up a toll-free hotline for pilgrims traveling to Mecca for the hajj, or annual pilgrimage, who believe that their rights have been violated.

    The End of Racial Profiling Act has languished until now. What did it need to reinvigorate it? New congressional leadership, and that's coming in January. But it needed something else in this media age: a high-profile incident to jump-start it.

    What better than the media circus at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Nov. 20?


    Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com
    Read my signature below........
     

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